Questions about Indie Music and My Soul

P.J. O’Rourke thinks Woodstock was juvenile, meaningless, and overhyped. I can’t speak for the beats and riffs of his generation, since I’ve never been too interested by them (notwithstanding a significant Jimi Hendrix phase in middle school).

But I love indie music. Belle & Sebastian, Pedro the Lion, Sufjan Stevens, and Sigur Ros (if they count). The melancholy, the bare guitar, the reaching vocals: they grab me.

The oversimple lyrics and multivarious guitar influences of Jack White, the whimsy and airiness of Sufjan, the childish voice of Daniel Johnston, even the fascinations and explorations of Bjork – I know I like, but is it .. childish?

I’m not the aesthetic aristocrat that fellow Humane Pursuer Brian Brown is. In arts as well as logic, I am cautious about developments that extend too far from experience. The more flair or baroque that is added … does not necessarily mean it is better art. So the simplicity of indie rock – from the pure lofi of a guitar and heart-singing emo, like early Dashboard Confessional, to even some of David Bazan’s more recent explorations into electronica (though I wish he’d leave it behind like Sufjan did) – appeals to me because the rock feels like it is less about the production of a piece, with a paradigm and market for purchase, than it is a continuing musical connection with the artist’s experience of the world, and my own. I like that. Good music is not simply something that takes skill to create.

But the next question, to anticipate the arguments of Mr. Brown, is whether music should lift you above your experience, or simply resonate with it. I’ll admit, indie music is not known for its resolution (though inspiring it can be). In some ways there is an analogy to how conservatives think of government: the state does not need merely to be a reflection of what society actually is at the present time, but should also contain some measure of our ideals of civilization (e.g. just because there are more people smoking pot, doesn’t mean we have to decriminalize), so that we can be held to standards higher than our immediate, chthonic experience – and in the process develop our experience to something higher and more cultivated. In terms of culture, you don’t just say about a wine, “I like it” like you would about orange juice.

So my question to myself, with regards to indie rock, is partly about whether I am reveling in simplicity, rather than moving on to more cultivated forms. I’ll admit there is a possibility, but I’d like to move on to a second part. When music characterizes itself as an art by irony and whimsy, harsh realities and childish delight, then what is its conception of artistic ideal? In many ways, we are talking about postmodern music, because the musicians themselves believe less in an eternal, ideal form than in creating something temporary but accessible. Just like nostalgia plays off our romanticizations of our remembered experiences, indie music often reacts against mainstream music or other indie music – whatever happens to have permeated popular culture most, they hold to be the most “fake” or at least trite. In this case it is very much relativistic.

So what is the purpose of music? I honestly don’t have an answer, but I’ll throw down my stake on this meandering post. Music is inherently experiential, and coheres more with spirit than word. Talking about wine is nothing like drinking it, even if the words help us understand it. It is true we must all move past the jejune reactions that characterize mere revolt. However, music, like poetry, often functions as an exploration of the soul and its interaction with the world. For that reason, I’ll continue to listen to Iron & Wine.


  • October 15, 2009

    Nathan P. Origer

    1. Please, please, please retract any praise for Dashboard. Please.

    2. For my money, Explosions in the Sky > Sigur Rós

    3. “However, music, like poetry, often functions as an exploration of the soul and its interaction with the world. For that reason, I’ll continue to listen to Iron & Wine.” Well, sir, I don’t know that I’ve ever listened to the I&W/Calexico city — to which I’ve listened countless times — without repeating “He Lays in the Reins”.


    Re: your anticipation of Brian’s argument, I’m not convinced that what I infer to be a point of yours here — to wit, however enjoyable it be, indie music incapable of lifting us above our experiences, of being more cultivated — is necessarily true. In numerous cases of indie music (a broad genre if ever one has been!), it is, but there’s no way that I’d argue that, for instance, a Sigur Rós or Explosions, or any similar post-rock band doesn’t do this. I don’t believe that there’s anything “reveling in simplicity”-esque about early-“indie” (or, I guess, “alternative”, to be more accurate) band the Smashing Pumpkins, or Nineteen-eighties predecessors like the Cure. They may be darker, and sometimes not entirely “highbrow”, but that doesn’t preclude them from being complex or engendering complexity (even if only “emotional”, rather than “intellectual”) contemplation.

    Keep listening to Iron & Wine, indeed.

    (And because I never pass up the opportunity for shameless self-promotion:

  • October 15, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    Thanks, Nathan. Ultimately, contemplation can be either extensive or intensive, and maybe (good) indie music speaks more to the latter … though not always. This is my conclusion, but I do recognize that a number of bands falling within the indie ethos derive their sounds from playing off of what we don’t expect or think shouldn’t happen. If you’ve ever listened to Danielson Familie, that’s one reason I am hesitant to embrace. So I’m for the compexity of simplicity, which is kind of mystical, but I have qualms about songs that are indulgently ironic – as in “Yes, we’re being ironic and whimsical, but we like our experience of it.” It’s wierd. Postmodern philosophy finds its inheritance unacceptable and stands in disbelief. Music finds the same, but is able to relish in it, because it is less about belief commitment than experience.

    And thanks for bringing up Smashing Pumpkins, whose early-“alternative” is I think in the same broad family as indie.